It was one of those moments of quiet smugness at which the British excel. The director-general of the BBC had delivered the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Festival, arguing that the BBC is more popular than ever with the general public, that there is a gulf between the criticism of the corporation to be found in the press and the experience of ordinary viewers.
Mark Thompson’s positive message was broadcast live on the BBC news channel. Later it was discussed on the BBC’s Newsnight Review. Kirsty Wark and her four guests were, unusually, in complete agreement with one another. The BBC is a jewel in the crown of this country’s culture. It compares favourably to any broadcaster in the world. American TV, they said, was particularly ghastly – little more than a device for plucking money out of the viewer’s pocket, said one panellist.
With inconvenient timing, the Emmy Awards took place in Los Angeles a couple of days later, and offered an alternative view to this comfortable consensus. Two series, Mad Men and Glee, dominated the prizes. Both, like much of the best of American TV, combine commercial slickness with the sort of edgy originality of concept which one rarely finds in the BBC’s output.
The Mark Thompson argument is that the mixed economy of British broadcasting, funded both by the market and the state, works well. In interviews, the BBC programmes in which he expresses particular pride are Strictly Come Dancing, Doctor Who, Sherlock and the sitcom Rev.
It is a revealing list. Where the BBC now excels is in taking a rock-solid, established idea and giving it a sophisticated modern spin. The result is entertaining, safe and marketable. Look beyond the crowd-pleasers to what is put out on the BBC’s four channels, and one is struck by how little room there is for anything that is different, radical, experimental or elitist.
Astonishingly, to take an obvious example, there is not a single series devoted to new books – indeed culture is either presented in a pick-and-mix, magaziney format or is subjected to a sober documentary, invariably fronted by Alan Yentob. In its rare forays into the literary world, like the three-part history of the 20th century novel In Their Own Words, a plonkingly conventional approach is adopted, linking fascinating archive material with a scissors-and-paste narrative, more suited to the Discovery Channel than the BBC.
It is as if the influx of line managers has had a softening effect on the corporation. Its executives complain quite rightly that there is a politically motivated, anti-BBC bias in much of the press, and yet they are clearly influenced by criticism from the moralists of middle England. A fear of causing offence, of getting the wrong kind of news coverage, has eaten its way into the fabric of the institution.
Now when a series of short films by young directors is broadcast, it is likely to be on Channel 4. If leading playwrights are commissioned to write original dramas to be performed live, it will be on Sky Arts. An interesting series on contemporary song-writing, featuring detailed and fascinating interviews and performances, will also be found on Sky. Given its vast pool of talent and public money, it is the BBC which should be on the cutting edge, making at least a few programmes which take risks in content and style. If the result is a few scandalised articles in the middle-brow tabloids, then so be it. Those attacks usually mean someone is doing something right.
Ratings are not everything, BBC grandees have been saying recently. Daringly, Mark Thompson has suggested that “format leisure programmes” (people cooking meals, buying or doing up houses or selling things at auctions) might be reduced.
Away from the discussions about salaries, relocation and pensions, the BBC needs to remember that its public remit is not always to please the majority. From within the great bureaucracy of the corporation, it is time for individual talent – creative, radical, provocative, bloody-minded – to be given its head.